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Railroad historian says California is on wrong track

Stanford professor Richard White, author of 'Railroaded,' voices his staunch opposition to California's high-speed train

By Randy Dotinga / February 13, 2012

'We're still dealing with the consequences of what the railroads set in motion,' Richard White, author of 'Railroaded,' said. 'They’re a disaster politically and environmentally.'

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Considering that he spent 12 years studying the history of American railroads, you might assume Stanford University professor Richard White would be delighted to take a bullet train from nearby San Francisco to Los Angeles in the time it takes to watch a Harry Potter movie.

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After all, it's a dusty 6.5-hour trek by car and a hassle of security lines and cramped seats by plane.

But Richard White, the author of last year's well-received "Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America," is no fan of the state's mammoth high-speed rail project, which is scheduled to break ground this year. He warned in the New York Times last month that "it will become a Vietnam of transportation: easy to begin and difficult and expensive to stop."

White's opposition to the bullet train is unusual since he comes from the political left rather than the right. [Editor's note: In this sentence White was originally – and incorrectly – referred to as "Wilson."]  (Many of the project's political opponents are Republicans.) I called him and asked why he sees the nation's railroad history as a cautionary tale instead of an inspiration. We also talked about the railroad baron he considers to be an airhead – the one whose name graces Stanford University, where White works.

Q: You write that the transcontinental railroads weren't needed but got built anyway on the public dime. What happened?

A: The basic thing is that no one would invest in them to begin with. You’re building a railroad into the middle of nowhere – railroads starting nowhere and ending nowhere. There's no traffic on these things, so that's why they have to be subsidized. You need all this public money and then borrowed money to get these things up and running.

They went bankrupt once, twice, three times, but the men running them got tremendously rich. Railroads become these containers for speculation, collecting subsidies and selling bonds, and financial manipulation.

They’re much like the companies we're familiar with now that have gone into bankruptcy but have made people rich.

Q: What was the legacy of the railroad boom?

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